Contraception and the Catholic Church

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Last September, Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu (more favourably known as Mother Teresa) was canonised by Pope Francis before tens of thousands of adoring fans, despite the controversial and injurious legacy she left behind. You cannot her supporters for their ignorance about her dangerous shortcomings—she was after all consistently displayed by the media and the Church as a compassionate samaritan who devoted her life to serving and assisting the poor, attracting a universal admiration which, as Hitchens put it, “few have since had the poor taste to question”.¹ But what of her numerous views and actions which acted as bottlenecks in the processes of peace and secular humanity? Remarkably, but not surprisingly, they all seem to have either been forgotten about, or become encompassed by the blanket of corrupt misrepresentation and hyperbole which surround her character. In addition to this, certain more questionable aspects of Bojaxhiu’s crusade have somehow developed into a source of much contemptible praise from many of those whom she manipulated with her fraudulent demeanour and unwarranted political influence. An example of one such aspect, and one which I find to be especially dangerous and short-sighted, is her stance on the use of contraceptives. I wish not, however, to focus this discussion on the sexual advice of this particular virgin, as I would rather steer the conversation towards the institution from which her myopic beliefs originated: the Catholic Church.

What does the Catholic Church say about contraception?

The Catholic Church, failing to follow the example of more malleable Christian denominations, has long exhibited an almost absolutist opposition to contraception, which is not only a dangerous stance, given the worsening problem of AIDS in both developed countries and the third world, but also remarkably illogical. The Church believes that artificial birth control is inherently wicked and sinful, and despite Pope Francis’ statement in early 2016 that condoms may be permissible in response to the Zika virus epidemic (yet peculiarly not the AIDS epidemic), he was sure to stress that this was still only the lesser of two “evils” (the other being abortion).² Many Catholics subscribe to the notion that the use of condoms or other contraceptive methods is equally as unforgivable and deplorable as abortion, something once described as “the greatest destroyer of peace” by Mother Teresa herself.³ An odd remark, I find, given how famously familiar she was with the appalling adversity of modern poverty in the third world; surely a more deserved target for such a decisive assertion.

So what is the reasoning behind the condemnation?

My personal thoughts on Saint Teresa aside, it is my firm belief that the Catholic Church’s condemnation of artificial birth control is markedly unreasonable and inimical to those in the third world who are suffering under its influence. Inimical because here is being displayed a stark rejection of the single most effective method through which to reduce STDs among sexually active people, and unreasonable because the opinion is grounded on fundamentally defective logic. If you ask a Catholic to explain the reasoning behind their hostility towards contraceptives, there are two common arguments which are usually presented in response:

1) “The Bible says it should be so.”

Of course the Bible naturally does not make reference to modern contraceptives, as they were not yet available at the time of its writing. (One would have thought that an omniscient god might have seen them coming, but that’s a discussion for another time.) Where, then, is the Biblical foundation for the views of the Catholic Church regarding birth control? Well, we need to venture no further than the book of Genesis for scriptural reassurance of the official Catholic position:

“Then Judah said to Onan, “Sleep with your brother’s wife and fulfil your duty to her as a brother-in-law to raise up offspring for your brother.” But Onan knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother. What he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death also.” (Genesis 38:8-10)

There are two problems regarding this excerpt however. Firstly, it goes without saying that the Bible is not the most reliable source of practical ethical guidance. If religious scripture had included explanations as to why certain things are good or evil in such a way that did not necessitate the invocation of a supernatural deity then its moral teachings might have had a leg to stand on—if, for instance, God had laboured to explain the reasoning behind his commandments rather than simply stating them as unquestionable orders, even a non-believer may have been able to sympathise with their values—but unfortunately, this sort of clarification within the Bible is a rarity.

Secondly, it is unclear as to whether God was angered by Onan’s enactment of coitus interruptus or by his reason for doing so. It is very possible that God was punishing Onan for his refusal to accept Judah’s proposal rather than for the specific actions through which he prevented conception.

2) “Contraception denies the potential for procreation.”

The reason why this argument is so popular and often difficult to respond to is that it is absolutely true. By using contraceptives, you are actively removing the possibility of fertilisation occurring, and therefore preventing the conception of new life. The problem is that arguments of this kind focus their attention in the wrong place; it’s not about whether or not contraceptives refuse the potential for fertilisation, because they evidently do—it is instead about whether this is moral, immoral, or ethically neutral.

To those of you who are married, let me ask you, why is it that you are reading this blog post right now when you could be using the time to have unprotected sex with your spouse? By choosing not to initiate sexual intercourse at any given moment, you are denying the potential for new life to be created. By reading this right now, you are denying the potential for new life to be created. By doing anything other than having unprotected sex, you are denying the potential for new life to be created! If a man asks his wife for sex, and she refuses… well, you can probably see where this is going by now. Surely, by using the logic of the afforementioned second argument, we can conclude that it is immoral for a woman to refuse to partake in sexual intercourse with her husband. In fact, by coupling this logic with Mother Teresa’s assertions, it can be justifiably stated that the refusal of sexual advances is to a Catholic equally as sinful as abortion! Fortunately, it takes not much more than a single brain cell to realise that this is not even slightly reasonable ethical reasoning, and so here we observe an example of one of the many flaws in the Catholic Church’s condemnation of contraceptives.

Summary

To summarise: yes, contraceptives disallow the inception of life, but the denial of creation is not the same thing as destruction, and so cannot be reasonably looked upon with an equivalent distaste. The Catholic Church needs to get with the times and alter its approach to birth control, even if just to rectify the awkwardly contradictory ethical principles vocalised by its leader. Whatever the case, I can only hope that it happens soon.


Footnotes

1. Hell’s Angel. Dir. Jenny Morgan. Perf. Christopher Hitchens. Channel Four Television Corporation, 1994.
2. Pope Francis said this to reporters on a flight from Mexico to Rome in February 2016.
3. This was said by Bojaxhiu at the 1994 National Prayer Breakfast in the presence of Bill and Hillary Clinton.

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18 comments

  1. I always find it ironic when a church or religious individual opposes both contraception and abortion. More widely used contraception could potentially reduce the number of abortions and I think everyone can agree that the terminating a pregnancy is much more demanding mentally and physically than preventing it.
    In addition, the big advantage of condom and such is the protection from STIs, what you described in your article. For me it shows that the church does not truly care about people.

    Like

  2. Needs some editing, and your thought structure needs a bit more organization, but overall your view point was well described.

    Post script – Where are your citations?

    Liked by 2 people

      1. It’s a Blog, not a term paper. You could cite sources that discuss Pope Francis’ comments, etc. But people can look that up for themselves or take your word for it.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. I’d leave Mother Teresa alone. You don’t want to be dismissed because of an outlier stance. Christopher Hitchens was certainly not “Dismissed” in a broad sense, but he definitely lost people he otherwise may have engaged with. I also don’t find the anti-mother teresa claims to be all that convincing.

    Good blog post. Can’t really argue with the absurdity of contraception-as-sin.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I really like your blog.. very nice colors & theme.
    Did you create this website yourself or did you hire someone to do it for you?
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    Liked by 2 people

  5. Just a quick response. This was a well written post, but it doesn’t really engage the central philosophical arguments for the immorality of contraception. In particular, it doesn’t (really) engage natural law theory at all. You come close, by responding to the claim that “contraception denies the potential for procreation,” but unfortunatley you’ve entirely misunderstood the point of the claim in the first place. Natural law theorists, following Aristotle, hold that “every act and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good” (Nichomachean Ethics 1.1). In other words, natural law theorists believe that every action is directed towards some natural end. The natural end of sexual activities, they would insist, is procreation. So any sexual action that purposefully prohibits or acts against the natural end of sexuality, is immoral. This is the meaning of saying that “contraception denies the potential for procreation.” Now you bring up by way of response that any number of activities deny the potential for procreation, which is absolutely correct. But natural law theorists are not claiming that “any action which denies the potential for procreation is immoral”, since that’d just be absurd. Rather, they’re claiming that “any SEXUAL activity that purposefully works against/prohibits the inherent natural ends of SEXUAL activity is immoral.” So any sexual interaction, which is not purposefully intended for procreation as its natural end, is immoral (which includes homosexuality, oral sex, etc). Now, you may very well disagree with all that, and with natural law theory in general. But one should at least make sure one understands the actual claims of a position, before one goes about criticizing it.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. My biggest issue with the Natural Law analysis is that there are more than one natural ends to sex. Procreation is one, but not the only one. Sex in all its forms can relieve stress, build closer relationships, etc. To view sex as only a means of reproduction is to ignore a host of other natural benefits.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Natural Law theory does not preclude this. In fact, natural law theory (at least some interpretations) fully admits that sexual activity has multiple ends. But, it insists these other ends, such as stress reliever, pleasure, building relationship, etc., are all “secondary” ends to the primary end of procreation. This means that they are all good to seek after, if they are sought within the context of the primary end. And I don’t think it’s very difficult at all to defend this. Take, for instance, the unifying nature of sex, i.e. the ability of sex to strengthen the mutual relationship between two partners. Why should we seek this as an end of sex? Presumably we wouldn’t use sex to strengthen the bond of just any type of relationship. Friendships, peers, colleagues, etc. are all types of relationships we’d hardly use sex as a means of achieving a strengthened bond therefore. Rather, sex is a means of strengthening the bond of what we might call “romantic” relationships. But why would we want to strengthen the bond of this relationship, or even be in such relationships at all? And the answer is surely that the purpose of all romantic relationships, essentially, is for procreation. Biologically, the only reason we feel “romantic attraction” at all is so that we will be induced to procreate. A stable bond between two partners allows them to better raise their offspring in a health environment. Certainly, romantic relationships can give us meaning and fulfillment beyond just procreation, but it’s hard to deny, even just on a biological level, that the purpose of romantic attachment is ultimately procreation. A natural law theorist will argue this, and will maintain that these other “ends” of sex must be qualified. A “result” is not the same as a primary end. The result of sex is pleasure, and stress relief, and attachment. But this is a different question than asking what the primary *purpose* of sex is, what sex exists for, and that, it can be argued, is procreation.

        Liked by 2 people

  6. Your essay is impressive, especially since it is your first formal writing outside of school essays and term papers.
    Mother Teresa was canonized or sanctified by an institutional religion to serve its own hidden agenda including child abuse and other crimes against humanity, e.g., the Ninth Circle. Like some other saints, she is not a mystic or a spiritually enlightened person. Rather she obediently conformed to the dogma, doctrines and dictates of her religious superiors.
    For example, Mother Teresa in her alleged great saintly concern for the poor, hungry, ill and ignorant children, reportedly would not allow them to be adopted by eager potential childless couples unless they were adherents of the Roman Catholic faith. Non-Catholic couples were turned away.
    So-called charities that help the poor, sick and uneducated are serving The System, the establishment controlled by the Power Elite, rather than subverting the oppressive, authoritarian System of control and exploitation. The members of such so-called charitable organizations are in what can be called the Missionary Position as apparent frauds, charlatans and prostitutes.
    Nature includes activities to find food and get sex. Regarding Natural Law Theory, it can be reasonably argued that the natural end of sexual activities (autoerotic, homoerotic and heteroerotic) is threefold: procreation, recreation and occupation. In nature, sexual animals mate, play and exchange things of value like trading orgasms.
    I apologize for my conclusory statements, but time and space do not permit full supporting evidence and related citations of original sources.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. There is something gloriously self-masturbatory about a blog post where you have to extract the HTML and search date formats to figure out when it was posted. Mr. O’Connor, please please please just put a date somewhere at the top of each post. It’s like putting page numbers in a book – they’re not necessary, but going without is just giving the middle finger to anybody who doesn’t read the book in one sitting.

    Like

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